GNOCCHI

(Here’s the third segment of Gnocchi.  I think you probably know the best way to read this – if you haven’t read part two, read that first.  If you haven’t read part one, go back even further and rest your eyes on that before the others, for maximum comprehension)

LEG THREE: WILL

Later in the summer, during a lull in riots and with Gnocchi growing a little more confident, Will decided they were probably just about due to hold some kind of social event at the house.  With approval from Rebecca and Pietro he began to send out invitations and to prepare the house and barbecue.  Gnocchi nosed around, nuzzling Will’s hands as he tried to get on with his tasks.

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On some days Will even worked through the siesta, leaving Rebecca and Pietro to get on with it alone as he gently remodelled the hallways, formed sausages and burgers in the kitchen, checked and rechecked the invite list.  It was not that he particularly wanted to host a party but he felt in some way that they should be sociable and extend their boundaries, even if it were only for one night.  The state of the outside world was unpredictable, from one day to the next – it might rain or the streets might sweat with the trembling of riotous hands again.  Gnocchi kept an eye on it all from her catflap.

Pietro and Rebecca had devised a two person play that they used to entertain Gnocchi when she was restless.  This was wheeled out whenever Will was busy shifting party furniture or hoovering the floor.  Gnocchi would watch what they were doing and then as soon as it was over, turn around to look for the disturbance, as if she had noticed it and filed it away to investigate later.  Of course by then Will had finished his chore and there was nothing for Gnocchi to find.

The day of the party arrived, like a steam train into their lives.

Before the guests arrived, Pietro enticed Gnocchi into a quiet and sparse room at the back of the house, made sure the window was closed and there was the right strength – not too much, not too little – of catnip toys to keep her entertained for the evening.

And then the fun could begin.  Rebecca leant against the fridge and played the mandolin as the partygoers began to drift in.  Rod and Melanie were the first couple, quickly accosted by Will to talk about accounts.  Pietro busily introduced himself to arriving parties, Sergio, Gerrard, Josie.  Waves of guests became a flood – Kevin, Samantha, Simon, Simone, Pierre, Tamsin, Andy, Michelle – and in this ocean of people bottles bobbed and clinked like secret messages in the crowd.  The mass of people swigged and swayed with the rise and fall of an alcoholic tide, their bodies and minds becoming something else as time passed.

Upstairs, Gnocchi lay on her back on the floor, rolling over and over in self-contained glee.  Then she stood up quickly and pounced and pounced and pounced again at her catnip toy.  Then she stayed still.  Then she rolled over again.  Eventually she found a seat with a cushion and curled up.

The party continued, relentless.  Rebecca was persuaded to create an ice sculpture in the bath.  Pietro entertained with his magic tricks.  Will disappeared for a nap with Rod and Melanie upstairs.  All seemed to be going well.  There was little trouble out on the streets, it was not that kind of night, it was the other kind of night.  Like there was valium in the air and xanax in the water.

Gnocchi, locked away upstairs, was out of sight but not out of mind and Pietro held court, explaining the little cat’s every little foible and habit to Tamsin, Pierre and Samantha.  She was, he explained, the metronome of the house, the beat around which the three of them worked.  At some point the formations in the party changed as the various guests mingled into new combinations.

Will and Rebecca found themselves together and stepped outside for a breath of fresh air, lying on the pavement in front of the house and watching the night happen around them.  Neither of them said anything.  There was no need.  Both of them were thinking about another night, earlier in the summer, when a stray cardboard cut-out had wandered into their lives.

The party slowed to a halt – hosts and guests slumping one by one into sleeping positions.  Drinks were discarded on tabletops and mantelpieces, some guests even fell asleep with their glasses still in their hands.  Somewhere along the way, someone must have opened the door to the spare room and not closed it behind them, for soon came the soft steps of a little cat intent on re-exploring the rest of the house.  She miaowed as she walked, making noises at what seemed to be random intervals.  The noises were not so loud as to wake the partygoers.

Gnocchi ambled around, exploring these new human lumps, climbing on their chests and licking their bare skin.  She discovered some drinks and tried licking these too, lapping the surface like they were tiny ponds.  Most of them tasted slightly different and she concluded a survey of her options before settling for a dark red drink in a glass which somehow remained upright in the hand of some sleeping lady or other.

When Gnocchi finally fell asleep, curled up on the chest of a passed out reveller, she began to dream a strange dream of being a cat with thumbs, able to pick things up, open doors, write, throw, catch.  Furthermore, the dream began to spread through the minds of the sleeping humans, directed, dictated and disseminated by Gnocchi.  Dreaming drunk and out of control, they all shared thoughts of a world in which cats snuck around, quick-witted and able, learning how to dominate their human masters.

In the morning, Rebecca awoke with just this dream in her mind and, concerned, she climbed over Sergio and Rebecca to get out of bed.  When she found Gnocchi, dozing thumbless in the living room, she was relieved.  The house clanged and tripped with the sore heads of weary drinkers as they fumbled to consciousness like milkmen trying to find their way through the fog.  Will grilled bacon and furnished the party with mid-morning sandwiches, which Gnocchi did her best to seem uninterested in.  Soon after that, people began to depart.

They put the flat back together again, re-assembling the peace piece by piece.  All the while the dream played in Rebecca’s mind, forming stories and art ideas.  At teatime they ate dinner together, still a little sluggish as if their insides were made of glue.  In the streets outside the house, fights tumbled again down the streets.  This had not been forecast.  They made sure Gnocchi was in the house, and then locked the door and drew the curtains and settled in for the night.  Will rubbed Pietro’s toes whilst they watched a film, and Rebecca sat at her desk and began to work on some panels of a comic strip.

She was busy imagining a world in which cats wandered around attending to their every day business whilst wearing human-shaped clothes.  In fact, she had decided that there was some petty revenge to be had in building a world in which cats had everything but opposable thumbs.  In one panel, she drew some well-dressed business cats sitting at a roadside cafe, each of them trying desperately to pick up their cups of tea and only succeeding in chasing their drinks around the table, and eventually upending them.  In another, a nefarious criminal cat tried desperately to pick bundles of notes out of  a suitcase.

Rebecca showed Pietro and Will, and the three of them laughed about it.  Gnocchi frowned as she tried to read the little comic, unable to reach out and turn the pages, but took it all with good humour.  The happy scene seemed to go on forever, and when Will and Rebecca thought about it later it seemed as if there had been someone there recording it all, making a commemorative video of a unit at the peak of its powers.

GNOCCHI

(This is the second part of a four-part story.  If you’ve missed the first part, don’t read this part first – this is part two!  Read the first part first and then this part, then wait patiently for parts three and four.  Thank you.)

LEG TWO: REBECCA

Rebecca’s next art project was to install a cat flap in the front door so that Gnocchi could come and go, just like a real cat.  Once it was done, Pietro and Will examined it.  Will pressed his hand against the tiny door and it swung open and closed.  Pietro contorted himself so that he could push his head, shoulders and arms through and then just stayed there, the door tight against his armpits as he watched things happen in the street outside.  Not much was happening.  He pulled himself back inside.  Just like a real cat, they all said.

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Pietro stood by the dishwasher before bedtime, turning magic tricks with his quick hands.  Gnocchi watched from the kitchen floor, her little eyes moving backwards and forwards.  The drowsy air of another summer night had drifted in through the windows and soon enough the day was at its end and the three humans stretched out on the bed to sleep together, each trying to stay as cool and still as possible.

For a few days, Gnocchi used the cat flap in the way she had seen Pietro demonstrate.  Instead of coming and going, she would push herself halfway through the flap so that the front of her body was outside and the back remained inside.  This caused trouble when Will, Rebecca or even Pietro wanted to leave, as she had to scooch backwards and forwards in time with the movement of the door.  Thankfully, the humans seldom had cause to leave the house.  As they lay together making their separate ways into their afternoon naps Will, Pietro and Rebecca discussed the little cat, slowly, lazily.  She’s a good puss.  But so scared.  Maybe one day she will.

In the evening, Rebecca stood on the pavement outside and watched smoke curl from her cigarette and up into the sky.  It was a cloudless summer and the stars were bright, as though outer space was within touching distance and the borders of reality could break at any moment.  She was half thinking about her art and half about Gnocchi and half about Pietro and how he had come to be in their lives.  Inside the house Will and Pietro were curled up on the sofa, half  watching the television and half watching Gnocchi and half entertaining their own thoughts.  It was peaceful out on the streets that night, but who knew how long it would last in that strange summer.  Rebecca thought that sooner or later she would need to make a trip into town to get art supplies.  That would be interesting – things would be sure to have changed in town she was last there.  She finished smoking and went back inside to join the boys on the sofa.  Gnocchi mewled at them and padded over to join them.

The next day day continued much like many of the others.  Will worked on the accounts and then made some samosas for lunch.  Pietro and Rebecca had been using up the last of her paints and plasticine, and then they had a shower before it was time to eat.  The three of them stood around in the kitchen, waiting for the samosas to be ready.  On the radio, the forecast was predicting the possibility of more trouble in the streets, there was a hope for rain to keep things quiet.  Will looked apprehensive.  The samosas were not quite ready.

Gnocchi had spent most of the morning looking out through the cat flap, and at one point Will had watched as two regular neighbourhood cats came along and seemed to have a short conversation with her.  It looked for a while as though Gnocchi wanted to go out and hang around with them, but then she had reversed back into the house.  Will had fed her a cat biscuit brunch.  Now, as the humans waited for the samosas to be ready, the little cat came looking for more food.  Pietro asked if she had been fed and Gnocchi shook her head with wide-eyed solemnity.  He put down some more food for her, thinking as he did that she was looking smaller.  He put it down as a trick of the light.

Will, Rebecca and Pietro ate their samosas.  Afterwards, Rebecca washed the dishes whilst the boys went upstairs to get a start on their siestas.  Gnocchi curled herself in and out around her ankles, forming figure eights with her little cat body.  Rebecca asked if she had been fed, and the little cat reprised her wide-eyed, head-shaking performance.  Rebecca put down some food, barely noticing that Gnocchi seemed to be getting smaller and smaller.  It was just the angle, she told herself.

As Rebecca slung her bag over her shoulder, she could hear the boys asking each other if they had seen Gnocchi.  They were shaking their heads and saying no.  She wondered what they would get up to whilst she was out.  The world outside seemed calm, and she watched it passing by as she waited for the bus at the end of the road.  The bus duly arrived, lurching neatly to a stop so that when it’s doors opened, Rebecca had only to step forwards, a note of order in that chaotic summer.

Rebecca looked out of the window and watched the buildings pass, rolled up human garbage dotted on the pavements, ready for collection.  She heard a tiny mewling, as if a cat was in peril far, far away.  It sounded like Gnocchi.

For some reason, she decided to root in her bag.  For some reason, she had a strange feeling.  For some reason, something brushed against her hand as she felt for her purse.  Something furry.  She felt a tiny, licky feeling on her little finger.  On inspection, Rebecca found a cat, a teeny-tiny cat, a cat as big as a thimble, made up to look just like Gnocchi.  It moved like Gnocchi, it sounded like Gnocchi, Gnocchi far away.  The cat sat on the palm of her hand as she held it up for inspection.  The cat looked back inquisitively.

The little – very little – cat sat on Rebecca’s hand and licked itself, then looked up nonchalantly as if it was surprised to see Rebecca there.  As if she had only just noticed.  Keen for her fellow passengers not to see, Rebecca slipped Gnocchi back into her bag and from time to time she would slip her hand back in to feel the tiny swish of her fur and the lick of her tiny pink ham-like tongue.  The best course of action, she decided, was to make sure she didn’t lose the cat whilst she was in the city, then they could work out this sizing issue when they got back to the house.

They were nearly into the city now, and the bus wound it’s way around the roundabouts and the one-way systems that had been introduced since last time Rebecca had been to the centre.  It passed an estate of plastic housing that was being melted down in what Rebecca assumed was a controlled fire, and she watched the buildings collapsing in on themselves like tents being taken down.  The grease of the industrial times sweated off the faces of the passersby as they desperately ate ice-cream.  People shouted and sold things and took up other city pursuits.  Rebecca gazed fondly at the scene, not missing it at all.

By the time she had walked from the bus station to her favourite art supply shop, Rebecca had decided it would be ok to let Gnocchi see a bit of the world and so she carefully picked her out of her bag and let her wander around the flat palm of her hand as she examined paints and paintbrushes and painted brushes.  There were other artists perusing the shelves, but for the most part they seemed to think that Gnocchi was some kind of modern toy, or perhaps a figment of their artistic imaginations.

Rebecca examined some materials, great rolls of fabric which were stacked in the corner of the shop, trying to get ideas for future projects.  Gnocchi walked to the end of Rebecca’s fingertips and strained to reach some felt so that she could feel it against her fur.  Rebecca wondered about making a waistcoat for the little cat.

It was while she was thinking this through – and thinking about measurements and stitches and how it could be made – that she felt the presence of someone behind her, then a hand reaching round, and suddenly with a quick grasp and a wild miaow, Gnocchi was out of her hands and a man in paint-flecked denim was running across the room with the cat cupped in his hands.

Rebecca gave chase, using her every artistic instinct to draw herself neatly around a stand of sketchbooks and shade a shelve of pens.  They ran past a stack of wooden figures, and the figures tumbled all around in a strange wooden royal rumble.  Then past some easels and paints, and Rebecca could feel that she was gaining on the crooked painter.  He looked over his shoulder, and Rebecca could see the panic in his eyes as he knew he was heading towards a dead end.

When she had the errant artist cornered, stuck in the corner where all the different types of glue were displayed, Rebecca made sure he did not have time to plan an escape.

She immediately launched herself towards him with both feet, kicking him hard in the elbows.  He howled and let go of Gnocchi.  Rebecca got back to her feet and started kicking him in the ribs and then in the thighs and then in the nose.  Blood erupted from his face, creating an impromtu Rothko on the wall.

The art shop proprietor brought out a shovel, bucket and sponge and helped Rebecca to tidy away the body and the blood, then they went to look for the cat.  Startled by the violent display, Gnocchi had scarpered, and it took them the best part of twenty minutes to find the cat hiding under some shelving, trembling and mewling.  Rebecca decided it was time to get her home.

The art shop proprietor apologised for the fact that the cat theft had happened in his shop by letting her have her supplies for free, and in return Rebecca apologised for making such a mess by insisting on paying for them.  They swapped notes on the random eruptions of violence they had witnessed in the summer months and wished each other peace, good luck and artistic inspiration.

Rebecca and Gnocchi rode the bus home with a bag full of new supplies, lots of things to make and do.

Back at the house, the inquiry began.  Pietro, Rebecca and Will sat Gnocchi down on a tiny plate and fired questions at her until they had pieced together an accurate picture of the little cat’s mealtime scam.  For the next few days Gnocchi behaved impeccably, admitting to each of them her every last snack, and sure enough she slowly began to grow back to her normal size.

Will charted her progress in a series of graphs, Rebecca made a series of to-scale sculptures, Pietro just watched the three of them and smiled.

Gnocchi

(Over the next four posts I’m going to serialise a short story I’ve been sitting on for a while.  Here’s the first leg – the next three will be along soon)

LEG ONE: PIETRO

Pietro first appeared in the lives of Will and Rebecca one warm, dry night when they were lying on the pavement outside the house, drinking but not drunk.  It was the first such evening that year, everything fresh and new and the summer stretching ahead, empty for them to dawdle through.

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On the other side of the road, Pietro seemed vaguely real.  The way that he was leaning against the hedge and not sinking into it created the impression that he was a cardboard cut-out of a man and the hedge was part of a film set.  And then along came some drunken rabbly crowd and one peeled away from the main body of the group and careered across the road, plunging headfirst into the hedge.

The rest of the crowd followed, roaring as they tripped and fell into the foliage, whilst Pietro just stepped calmly over the crowd, picking through the masses as if he was separate from the world, untouchable in some way.

Hello, he said as he approached.  Up close Pietro seemed slight yet determinedly 3D, solid and just like a real boy – Rebecca and Will sat at his feet and touched his clothes while they talked.

Aside from the calm that surrounded Pietro, the night was beginning to burn a little, people getting carried away with the nice weather.  The clear and starry sky was caving in on the town, bringing a weight of over-exuberance and heavy-handed horseplay.  Will and Rebecca got up to move inside, inviting Pietro to join them.  In his gentle way he followed them into the house and Will poured them all a wee drink in the front room.  Rebecca asked the questions she always asked of people she had just met, but by bedtime she was no closer to knowing where Pietro had come from.  Only one thing was certain – they both wanted him to stay.

The next morning Will left Rebecca in bed and got up to find debris on the streets and Pietro in his kitchen, making pasta.  Will set to work on the accounts, and later he and Pietro went out with dustpans and brushes and cleaned up outside.  They hauled some troublemakers out of the hedges and laid them by the roadside for collection.  Will expressed his hope that it would rain, Pietro concurred and added that he expected cloud.  When they went back inside, they found that Rebecca was up and working on her art.  Will began a morning conversation with her.  Pietro returned his pasta-making.

By lunchtime Will had finalised some accounts, Rebecca had completed a sculpture and Pietro had finished making a welcome present.  It was a beautiful, full-sized cat made of potato, egg and flour.  The detail of its feline cuteness expressed Pietro’s gratitude to Will and Rebecca.  The three of them agreed on the name Gnocchi and after a ravioli lunch, they all headed upstairs for a siesta.

When they had gone, Gnocchi moved a front paw experimentally.  Cocked her head to one side.  Made a tiny noise.

The little cat padded around the room, gently exploring the carpet, looking for something to eat.  She made tiny noises as she went, cast a mathematical eye over Will’s accounts, explored Rebecca’s sculpture with a critical tongue.  Her movements were slow and careful as she padded up the stairs in search of the humans.

Gnocchi hopped onto the bed and then made her way up from Will’s chest to his head, stepped across on to Pietro’s face and then on to Rebecca.  When she awoke she found Gnocchi curled up on her chest, purring.  She made a blundered attempt at stroking the cat, let out a surprised little oh.

Day #10943

March Round Up

“You haven’t posted anything on your blog for a while,” Rach told me.
“I’ve not got anything to put up,” I said.
“Can’t you just make something up?”
“Make something up?  Make something up?  What do you think this is?”

I have actually been making stuff up, it’s just that all the stuff I’ve made up recently has either disappeared off as competition entries or submissions, or it’s been fed into the living, breathing bulk of ever-growing noveliness.  It’s like feeding a pet.  Of which…

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I do have some work which I will be featuring on Digestive Press very soon – a serialisation of a story (about a cat) I wrote a while back, called Gnocchi.  Can I get away with posting an item that is basically an advert for my own work?  It’s my blog, so I’m going with YES.

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The winners and runners up of this year’s Fish Short Story Prize have been announced.  I had an interest in the results of this competition because I entered one of my stories in it.  The bad news is that I wasn’t named in the top three, or in the next seven – so my story won’t be in their anthology.  However, I did get on the 83-strong shortlist which, according to maths, means I was somewhere in the top 5%.  It isn’t possible to read my story, but if you click on the link above you can see very clearly my name written on a list!  (Have purposefully refrained from mentioning the title of the story so that you have to go and have a look to find out)

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For once, my reading of published fiction happened to coincide with the awarding of awards.  Just as I was enjoying George Saunders’ Tenth Of December, he was winning the Folio Prize.  It’s good to see a short story collection pitched against novels and coming out top, especially because Tenth Of December is an excellent piece of work that deserves recognition.  Saunders manages to be serious and entertaining in equal measure, political without his characters coming across as though they are just mouthpieces or pawns.

I also liked some of the things he said in this interview in the Guardian.

Saunders feels under no particular pressure to turn out another “nine, 12, 15” books since, he says wryly, “I think I’ll probably still die at the end.” The interesting thing is somehow to get “a story down that is true to the way this has all felt. Even if it’s a four-page story. That would be very nice.”

The other books in the above picture are:

1) Marie-Helene Bertino’s Safe As Houses, a short story collection I read in the new year.  Right from the beginning of the book it is clear that Bertino is a very good, very poetic writer, but it was only about halfway through that I felt the sentences got the stories they deserved.  Then the second half of it was brilliant and I would have been happy to read more.

2) Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! in which the main character becomes obsessed with Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic and uses its core values to re-shape her life.  This funny, frantic novel does a good job of encapsulating the nature of disaffected twenty-somethings.

3) Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen’s The Rabit Back Literature Society, published in the UK by the wonderful Pushkin Press, drags the reader into small-town weirdness reminiscent of the work of David Lynch.  He has interesting things to say about the vampiric nature of inspiration and, whilst most of the main characters are writers, it should sit just the right side of being able to retain the interest of non-writers.

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The programme for the 2014 Guernsey Litfest has been released.  It includes talks, workshops, performances etc from Andrew Motion, Robert Rankin, Farrago Poetry, Ella Berthoud (from the School Of Life) and Neil Perryman (who wrote Adventures With The Wife In Space, a blog and book about persuading his wife to watch all the classic Doctor Who series).  There are lots more things going on (see the website for information and tickets) and I’m looking forward to volunteering again and helping cover the weekend on the Litfest blog.